“What do you think about mountain mysticism?” Felix asked Clare over coffee in her kitchen.
“You mean, could a person get high?” she joked.
“Would a person fasting up in the mountains really have a vision?”
He was serious. “Clive had quite a bit of information about all this, I think. He said there were dream beds all through this part of the Rockies and over in the Sweetgrass Hills. He took a few photos or his informants did, but they’ve never been published for fear modern people would either go up to destroy them or risk their lives trying to fast in them.”
“What did they look like?”
“Not much. A little wall about the size of a bathtub, enough to keep the wind off a person lying down. Sometimes the wall is shale on edge, propped along in a row, and sometimes it’s piled. Depends on what rocks are handy. But they don’t call these mountains “rocky” for nothing.”
“Then they’re all above tree level. The altitude where trees stop growing.”
“I suppose so. The idea is to be able to meditate while looking into the distance. There’s a story, you know. It began to be a competition among the parents to see whose son could fast the longest and bring back the most powerful vision. Opinions differed about which animal helper might be the most powerful, but competition is always dangerous when people are doing risky things.”
“Today we’d call that extreme, like extreme sports.”
“Yes. Ordinary mountains are dangerous all by themselves. More tourists die falling off mountains in Glacier Park every year than the bears kill. They’re all afraid of bears, but they'll stand on the edge of cliffs, climbing over the guard rails to get there.”
“What’s the story?”
“A boy goes up to a dreaming spot. His father goes with him so he can come back and check on him now and then, as his people expect him to do. But the father wants his son to be tough, to excel, so he doesn’t go back until the third day -- maybe the fourth. When he gets there, the son is gone. Instead a little bird has taken his place.”
“What do you think REALLY happened to that boy? Do you think a predator dragged him off?”
“Maybe the vision he had was that he didn’t need such an unreliable father and he just left. Went to live with other people.” Clare emptied the dregs of her coffee. She ought to figure out how to make filter coffee without grounds getting over the edge into the plastic cone, but the truth was that she sort of liked biting the bigger particles of beans. “I’d best get to work.”
“I’m going on up the mountain today. I’m gonna look for a dream bed. Obviously my father won’t come looking for me since he can barely get himself across a room and I don’t want company. Snugs will stay with him. But if I don’t show up by this time tomorrow, will you call someone? If Snugs calls, they won’t pay attention. He’s just another unreliable Indian.”
“Snugs. My nephew.”
“No, I mean, who do I call?”
“Sheriff, I suppose. He must know about search and rescue. I’ll be in the Lewis & Clark forest. I’m going up the trail out of Heart Butte. I’ll draw a little map and leave it on my kitchen table.”
“Of course I’ll call.” But she stood in front of her studio and watched Felix’ retreating back until Goldie meowed to get inside. Then she went in to start a fire in the studio woodstove, thinking it was chilly, maybe this cold front might bring rain or even snow up high. Worried, she knew better than to interfere.
Felix left his map with a fork on top to hold it down and cautioned Snugs and his father not to move it. He threw some bologna and cheese into his backpack -- not a big pack with a frame but more of a day pack. Some matches in a waterproof holder plus a butane barbecue lighter. A quarter-inch map. A compass hung on his jacket zipper. Hiking boots. Half was thrilled and waltzed in a circle when Felix threw in some dog chow.
Leaving the car as far in as he could drive, he found the trailhead. Half an hour of walking before he began to hit his stride and remember what it was like to swing along this way. It felt great. The bull pines and aspen were damp from the last showers but it looked as though the clearing that always followed a cold front in fall was beginning to push the clouds back. The aspens had lost a lot of leaves this high. Sometimes he saw bear scat, loaded with the remains of berries, but it was all old stuff. He kept Half within eyesight.
Once up into the high ridges, he could see a lot farther. Long veils of mist were writhing and parting, slowly leaving. As they went they revealed the wall-like stone of the Rocky Mountain ramparts. It had eructed in sections, like a slab that had been broken from underneath -- probably that’s about what happened. When there was enough blue sky for the sun to warm the stone, he began to see eagles gyring on the rising air. Golden eagles -- not bald eagles. Wide strong wings and broad tails of valuable feathers. Now that eagles were protected, the feathers were worth even more. Anything forbidden is attractive.
Fweet. Marmots. A whole colony in the remains of an avalanche, bustling around stashing grass in their holes. Fweet. On the alert.
Up high in the cliff he could see a broken place in the rock and a white swash like paint beneath it. Eagle nest. When he looked more closely, he could see ends of sticks that he knew were from the piles and tangles the eagles made for nests. Scanning the long slope of scree, he looked for something that might be the remains of an eagle-catching pit, a place a man could hunker down with a kind of lid of leafy branches where he could put bait so the eagle would land on it. Then he’d grab through the branches and get the bird by the ankles. Have to be fast. Have to avoid those claws, as long as a man’s fingers and sharp as... Not edged like a knife, but more like a construction nail. Like metal. Black. Curved. How could the catcher evade the yellow hooked beak? Couldn’t. Bound to get hurt. Must’ve been worth it. Extreme but rewarding.
Warmed by exertion and the steady sun reflected off stone, he took off his jacket and stuffed it into the pack. He didn’t need the compass up here -- he could see for many many miles, the long slow slope of prairie off into a purple-hazed distance and little scribbles that were towns, easy to ignore. He took deep breaths, more than panting, a kind of exhaltation expressed as exhaling.
Half loped ahead, then doubled back, but he had slowed down some. Felix let him go. He’d see bears soon enough if there were any up this high. They’d be by the marmots maybe -- otherwise they needed bulk food this time of year and would more likely be lower. He was startled when Half came back barking and agitated. The dog had been higher and past a ridge, so he approached the ridge with caution.
There was no bear. Instead a pile of rock looked manmade, arranged rather than fallen. Something dark was in it. He approached carefully and Half stayed close.
It was a vision bed, a rock wall of piled rock, just big enough to outline a body. Felix nearly backed away, afraid of interrupting someone in the midst of a fast. He stood at a distance, watching for movement, but there was none. “Hello?” he yelled.
It seemed to be a man, on his face, under a blanket except for his head. He could see that the head had three dark braids, which is the way Blackfeet do boys’ hair. “Are you all right?” There was no response. He and Half went slowly closer. The body seemed flat. The blanket was discolored. He began to suspect that this person was not all right at all. Or maybe ultimately all right, if you wanted to look at it that way.
He threw a handful of pebbles onto the blanket but there was no movement. In a while he and Half went to stand beside the low wall and look directly down at the body. Clearly, this young (?) man was dead. Half’s back hairs were standing up in a ridge. They circled along the outside perimeter of the wall until they could see the face, where the head was turned to one side, and a hand stuck out of a jacket. That wrist had a Navajo-style bracelet, a cuff. The silver was oxidized dark but the turquoise was still pure. He had been dead a long time, mummified as dry meat by the sun, wind and low humidity. He had not turned into a small bird.